January 26, 2008

Irony alert: Religious cards made in China

I just got a Christian religiously-themed card from my cousin, a condolence card on the death of my mom. It’s a Hallmark, not a private religious label, but, nonetheless, I find it more than a little ironic that Christian cards (like a bunch of crapola angel figurines and other stuff sold at Christmas) are all made in what is still one of the world’s most religiously repressive countries.

On the coffee table -- 'Presidential Courage'

Michael Beschloss is more a “pop”-level historian than a heavyweight like Garry Wills. The bad side is less depth. The plus side is, especially on a straightforward topic like this, an easy read.

Beschloss looks at several instances of presidential courage, some controversial. They include efforts by both Washington and John Adams to steer clear of war against both England and France, Andrew Jackson’s battle with the Bank of the United States, Lincoln’s management of the Civil War, especially his pre-election storm clouds of 1864, TRs trust-busting, FDR’s efforts to prepare the country for World War II, Truman’s decision to recognize the state of Israel (the least familiar to me, by far, in its details), Kennedy’s often-halting efforts on civil rights, and Reagan’s dealings with the Soviets on nuclear arms.

Science’s biggest guns weigh in on need for presidential science debate

The American Academy for the Advancement of Science is calling for just such a debate.
“Science and engineering have driven half the nation’s growth in GDP over the last half-century,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner, “and lie at the center of many of the major policy and economic challenges the next president will face. We feel that a presidential debate on science would be helpful to America’s national political dialogue.” Leshner has also joined the group’s steering committee.

Between Mike Huckabee on evolution, incumbent George Bush on global warming, and just-dropped-out Dennis Kucinich on UFOs (hey, anti-scientism can be bipartisan), this is a needed clarion call.

Fortunately, the debate call is also bipartisan.
The effort is being co-chaired by Congressmen Vern Ehlers, R-MI, and Rush Holt, D-NJ, and is also being championed by Congressman Bart Gordon, chair of the House Science & Technology Committee. It includes several former presidential science advisers from both major political parties.

And, the need is definitely there:
There have been several recent reports warning of potential erosion of the American economy and recommending changes in science and technology policies, said Shawn Lawrence Otto, one of the group’s organizers. “A recent Business Roundtable report shows that if current trends continue, in another two years over 90 percent of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia,” Otto said.

The bottom of the webpage linked above has several links itself, including to the Business Roundtable report and one by Congressman Bart Gordon, chair of the House Science & Technology Committee.

Update for Dennis Kucinich defenders who may be reading:To Barbara, in response to her comment to this post, I’m using “UFO” as shorthand, in the generic way, for people like Dennis, who claims to have actually talked with aliens.

So, it does make sense. Just about every “UFO” to “visit” has been scientifically proven something else; those that haven't actually been proven away have strongly been shown to be something explainable.

Yes, I’ve heard of SETI, but I think Drake, in his initial calculations, overestimated the likelihood of life in the universe, or our galaxy, at least as intelligent as us.

Beyond that, there’s two related psychological issues.

The first is psychological/technological/political. Would aliens advanced enough to have interstellar space travel just “bop in” in random individuals for short visits and then fly away? Absolutely not. They would either visit national and world leaders and share information, etc., or else find ways to shield their presence here from everybody, or else attack and invade (and, borrowing some susceptibility to Earth pathogens) easily conquer.

In light of that, here’s the second psychological issue. Many people who claim to have seen a “UFO” give detailed descriptions that indicate they’re not describing a “UFO” at all. For example, about 100 miles west of Dallas, people claim to have seen “UFOs.” However, at least one person described not a “UFO,” but a disc-shaped “flying saucer.”

In short, IMO, most people claiming to see “UFOs” are either lying, for their Warholian 15 minutes of fame, or delusional, the Harvard psych professor John Mack notwithstanding. Of course, from cognitive science, I argue the only difference between lying and delusion is ultimately that, in a delusion, you’re not even aware to yourself that you’re actually lying. (I’m distinguishing cognitive delusions from hallucinations.)

Garry Wills: We don’t need a co-presidency

Arguing that the current Bush-Cheney regime has been enough a co-presidency, respected historian Wills argues against a surely greater Clinton co-presidency.

Wills, a definite liberal, isn’t arguing against Hillary Clinton’s policies or anything, just the co-presidency idea. Given the fact that Democratic big brass such as Sen. Ted Kennedy are trying at this very moment to get Bill to pipe down, with limited results, it’s a legitimate concern.

Even GOP Congressman attacks Bush-Iraq long-term security deal

When even somebody as hawkishly conservative as Dana Rohrbacher says Bush needs to bring a proposed long-term security deal with Iraq before Congress, this baby as currently proposed is probably dead.

Will the Bush Administration back off this type of stubbornness?
“We don't anticipate now that these negotiations will lead to the status of a formal treaty which would then bring us to formal negotiations or formal inputs from the Congress,” General Douglas Lute, Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, said in November when the White House announced the plan.

Here’s Rohrabacher’s recent take:
At a House hearing on the pact (Jan. 23), Rohrabacher, Republican of California and a former Reagan administration official, accused the Bush administration of “arrogance” for not consulting with Congress about the pact. If it includes any guarantees to Iraq, he said, Congress must sign off.

“We are here to fulfill the constitutional role established by the founding fathers,” Rohrabacher said, adding, “It is not all in the hands of the president and his appointees. We play a major role.”

The deal actually goes far beyond a status-of-forces security agreement anyway, including things like debt forgiveness and economic aid, as well as security commitments.

Globe commentator Savage notes that such a sweeping agreement has never been done before without Congressional approval and merely by presidential fiat.

And, this is becoming a political issue too, he notes:
Adding to the pressure, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has also repeatedly raised the topic in recent days. The New York senator has filed legislation that would block the expenditure of funds to implement any agreement with Iraq that was not submitted to Congress for approval. Her rival, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, became a cosponsor to the bill (Jan. 22).

As an I-don’t-give-a-damn lame duck, though, I foresee Bush ploughing ahead, and then daring his successor to retroactively seek Congressional approval, or the current Congress to actually not fund its provisions.

January 25, 2008

Boxer wants to undo EPA’s California CO2 theft

California Democrat Barbara Boxer has just proposed a bill that would undo the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent refusal to grant California, and more than a dozen other piggybacking states, the right to set tough new standards on automotive carbon dioxide emissions. She’s got 17 cosponsors so far, all Democrats except Joe Lieberman (I-Neocon).

Sen. Bill Nelson: The intersection point of timidity and cowardice

Florida Democrat Bill Nelson was one of the “dirty dozen” Democratic senators to vote in favor of FISA renewal bill with immunity for telecommunications companies Jan. 24. But, what he really wants to do is punt the ball. Specifically, he’s cosponsoring an amendment to shove the immunity decision off onto the FISA court.

Oh, and shock me that Dianne Feinstein (D-Betty Crocker) is the other cosponsor.

January 24, 2008

A new acronym means recession could be worse than many claim

You’ve learned about CDOs and SIVs; now, it may be time to bone up on CDSs.

John Markman claims credit default swaps by banks and other financial institutions will add extra pain to the current recession:
Nearly seven decades ago, the eight months between Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and its invasion of France in 1940 was known as the “phony war” — a period of escalating anxiety, denial, appeasement, danger and death, but nothing like the murderous global train wreck soon to follow.

Likewise, we may come to look at the period between July 2007 and January 2008 as a sort of phony war in the worldwide credit crisis, because although the market has fallen 15 percent since summer, there have been no defaults of key bonds or asset-backed securities. The curious lack of real blowups has led even seasoned observers to believe that fears were exaggerated and that chaos will be averted.

In reality, however, the skirmishes we’ve seen so far might be little more than a prelude to a deeper, harsher, longer decline than most yet perceive possible. And in a very postmodern twist, it is beginning to look like unexpected consequences of an investment instrument designed to mitigate risk could turn out to be the nuclear option that bombs the globe into the financial equivalent of World War III.

Here’s why CDSs could be a problem, according to Markman:
Because we are coming out of a long period in which debt defaults have been unusually low, hundreds of little-known hedge funds, pension funds and insurers worldwide were lulled by a false sense of complacency into the practice of selling CDSs — and their ability to pay up in the event of widespread defaults amid a long, hard recession is not just in doubt but completely unlikely.

Markman lists various ways these issuers are likely to try to get off the hook. They include contract loopholes, imprecise language not crafted to a specific bond insurance need, whether or not a bond issue’s “restructure” equals a default, available collateral and hedging of CDSs, and more.

Oh, for a good summary list of financial acronyms, visit this Economist story.

Housing slump worst since Depression?

For the first time since comprehensive records going back to 1968, housing prices declined for an entire year in 2007. How bad is it? Even the financial guru for the National Association of Realtors was glum:
Lawrence Yun, the Realtors’ chief economist, said it was likely that the country has not experienced a decline in housing prices for an entire year since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In other words, neither a Fed rate cut nor a one-off stimulus package is going to make a lot of difference. The housing market is going to have to suffer through this; I hope part of the price of that suffering is a variety of new regulatory legislation, not only on the marketing of subprime loans, but the use of things such as CDOs and SIVs by financial institutions, AND…

Regulation to address the currently incestuous relationship between these institutions and ratings agencies such as Moody’s.

‘Stimulus plan’ or ‘surrender plan’?

Here’s the details and Here’s the political backstory. (And here’s Krugman’s take.)

Now, here’s the backstory on the backstory:

Shrub on ropes seeking to extend legacy.

Rust Belt House Minority Leader Boehner represents a battered economic area.

Congressional Democrats still surrender.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., agreed to drop increases in food stamp and unemployment benefits during a Wednesday meeting in exchange for gaining the rebates of at least $300 for almost everyone earning a paycheck, including those who make too little to pay income taxes.

Plus…
The package also includes close to $50 billion in business tax cuts.

A little gift for GOP big biz.

Film at 10.

FISA with telco immunity: The Senate Dems’ dirty dozen

Here’s the details and Here’s the list of the 12 Democratic Senators who voted to kill the Senate Judiciary Committee’s FISA renewal plan without telecommunications company immunity:

Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN), Tom Carper (D-DE), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and Ken Salazar (D-CO).

Reason 944 not to vote Democratic, not just for President, but at the Congressional level, if you have a third-party candidate, preferably of the left, available.

January 23, 2008

Al Gore says Yes to gay marriage

Damn, this and climate change, maybe Democrats need to draft him anyway.

Why not to vote Democrat, reasons 942-943

No House contempt citation for Harriett Miers and John Bolton over the U.S. attorney firings, for one thing:
The House Judiciary Committee approved contempt citations against Bolten and Miers on July 25, but (Speaker Nancy) Pelosi has yet to bring the measures to the floor.

The latest delay? The economic stimulus package.
Senior Democrats have decided that holding a controversial vote on the contempt citations, which have already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee as part of its investigation into the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, would “step on their message” of bipartisan unity in the midst of the stimulus package talks.

Don’t worry, though, Pelosi will come up with some other excuse after it is passed. Oh, it’s nice to know that Pelosi “personally supports” the contempt citations. Six months on, you can’t get party consensus enough to pass this? And, if that’s not a reflection on your leadership style, that’s a reflection on a number of Democrats who are hiding in the shadows.

Reason No. 943? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appears to be determined, come hell or high water, to pass a FISA renewal bill with telecom immunity. The claim that Senate Democrats lack the vote to do otherwise is patently ridiculous. All Reid needs is 41 votes to keep any immunity-riddled version of FISA renewal off the floor.

With the backbone of Pelosi and the brains and sentiment of Reid (I have a sneaking suspicion he actually, at bottom line and his protests to the contrary, wants the immunity-guaranteeing version), the cry just gets stronger and stronger for real progressives to bail on the Democratic party.

Sorry to the Kevin Drums, Josh Marshalls, fellow Watching Those We Choose bloggers, but “enabling” just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Obama ‘purity’ runs into ‘pay-to-play on steroids’

Old real –estate dealings with the soon-on-trial Tony Rezko raise that issue in the area of real estate. Here’s the chief talking points from the Chicago Tribune:
A Tribune review of land and court documents and law firm files as well as correspondence and other records related to Obama's eight years as an Illinois state lawmaker supports his contention that he did not directly represent Rezko’s development firm. Instead, the records show, he represented non-profit community groups that partnered with Rezko’s firm.

Beyond the heated sound bites is a story of a more complex relationship that long boosted Obama’s political fortunes but now could prove a campaign liability. …

Obama publicly apologized for his 2005 property deal with Rezko, calling it "boneheaded" because Rezko was widely reported to be under grand jury investigation at the time. …

Obama has been accused of no wrongdoing involving Rezko and has insisted that he never used his office to benefit Rezko.

Thus far, there is little in the public record to suggest otherwise, and the few exceptions that have come to light appear minor.

The kicker, to me, is the 2005 deal.

Isn’t this one of the red flags raised against the Dukester, Duke Cunningham — buying below-market housing? Isn't below-market housing repairs a big red flag against Ted Stevens right now? And, in Obama’s own Illinois, isn’t a sweetheart land deal the last memorable act of former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert?

And, let’s remember that the Rezko’s prosector is liberal-beloved Pat Fitzgerald, who has already called this case “pay-to-play on steroids.”

Isn’t it doubly bone-headed, at least, to still be keeping close connection to Rezko when you know a Pat Fitzgerald is on the case?

Even if Obama did nothing illegal, it’s a big red flag on his judgment, from where I sit.

Note: I have up-close knowledge of something vaguely similar. The FBI wound up indicting multiple members of the Dallas City Council, including Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, for their connection to a public housing developer, with a variety of financial shenanigans alleged.

For another blog take on this, here’s Huffington Post’s Taylor Marsh, who calls it the “Faustian bargain” tale of a “political godfather,” in a long, in-depth, dot-connecting post. (Marsh goes on to note a couple of other cases where Obama’s liberal credentials fall a bit short, including one from last year.)

Marsh also raises the question of how Obama could either ignore, or be unaware of, so much dilapidated public housing in his district. That, in turn, also could reflect on his “liberal cred.” Here’s a laundry list of apartment complex problems:
Rezko and Mahru also managed the buildings, which were supposed to provide homes for poor people for 30 years. Every one of the projects ran into trouble:

• Seventeen buildings — many beset with code violations, including a lack of heat — ended up in foreclosure.

• Six buildings are currently boarded up.

• Hundreds of the apartments are vacant, in need of major repairs.

• Taxpayers have been stuck with millions in unpaid loans.

• At least a dozen times, the city of Chicago sued Rezmar for failure to heat buildings.

A lot of people have been talking about how Obama learned “Chicago politics” and how that meant he could stand up to Hillary Clinton in the primaries and the GOP opponent in the general election.

What if Obama learned some of the wrong, and stereotypically all-too-familiar, parts of “Chicago politics” as well?

Let’s not be so optimistic about national health care — that’s you, Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein

Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein are both optimistic on getting real health care changes done after this year’s elections. In specific, both are much more optimistic now that, as compared to the Clintons’ 1994 plan, much of the business community is on board.

Here’s Ezra:
Business also seems exhausted by the ceaseless march of health care costs and ready for reform. In 1994, when managed care was just beginning to squeeze cost growth, health spending grew by a mere 4.1 percent. It looked like the private sector might prove able to control costs just fine. But the gains from managed care dissipated as the 1990s wore on, and in 2005, health spending grew by 7.2 percent. Much of that cost was borne by the business community.

First, I’m not sure what world Ezra is even living in.

“Really?” is my mildest reply. My newspaper group, in the last 3-4 years, first cut its share of copay on premiums, after changing providers twice, then killed insurance entirely for a HSA. I am sure other people have similar stories.

In my opinion, Kevin and Ezra are wayyy too optimistic about the National Federation of Independent Business, and folks like them, committing to real health care change.. Sure, the NFIB has no problem with a mandate system, as long as businesses don't have to dig into corporate wallets to help with co-pay on premiums.

Get back to anything close to a single-payer system, or even a German voucher-type system where corporate taxes are a major portion of paying for this, and the NFIB will jump off that ship so damned fast...

Can’t believe the two bloggers sign off on the optimism line so easily. This “optimism” will get us enough incremental change the NFIB figures it will shut people up for 20 years or so.

And, should Obama get the Democratic nomination and then the election, the question of his “let’s play nice” on healthcare reform will become clear. I suspect if he moves one inch beyond a mandate that falls largely on the backs of employees, he’ll get his hat handed to him by the NFIB.

January 22, 2008

Maybe Rudy’s not quite so out of it, after all

Early voting in Florida began Jan. 14, before Giuliani’s campaign was totally in the crapper instead of just halfway there, for example. California's had early voting since mid-January.

From the point of wanting more GOP schadenfreude, we can only hope.

Ideally, Rudy will win Florida, while going nearly broke and throw the GOP race into more turmoil, followed by Huckabee winning all the Southern states in Super Tuesday, McCain losing New York to a resurgent but totally broke Rudy, the Schmuck Talk Express™ winning New Jersey and Pennsylvania, while Romney picks up a bunch of seconds and delegates, and maybe wins a state here and there.

Anyway, even though Thompson dropped out one state too late for Huckabee, he isn’t folding yet, you know that. He can win enough states to hang tough.

With most GOP contests being winner-take-all, “spoiler” is the only role left for Ron Paul, though.

The economic proof is NOT in the Chinese pudding, but the fear is in Bernanke

For months now, Wall Street bulls have been saying any “slack” or “slips” in the U.S. economy could easily be picked up by China. Or India. Well, Monday’s Asian stock market tanking put paid to that theory. Jim Jubak provides analytical details:
The death of this belief in "global decoupling" is likely to have three effects:

• It will shift the harshest bear market action from the U.S. to overseas markets, as overseas investors discover that their economies are slowing, too.
• It raises the odds of a "bear market rally" in the not-too-distant future. Such a rally would leave the bear market intact and end in another painful market downturn.
• And though the death of this myth is essential to finding the bottom in the current bear market, the final end of the bear still depends on a recovery in the U.S. financial and housing sectors, which now looks unlikely until early 2009.

The danger of slowing economic growth is a months-old story to U.S. investors — one reason that the major U.S. market indexes are currently flirting with the 20% loss that defines a bear market. But it's something new for investors in overseas markets, many of whom thought that those economies would be immune to a U.S. recession.

Plus, as Jubak points out, Europeans, like Americans, are familiar with the ideas of stock markets and their vagaries. In China, especially, this is a novel concept; you’ll note that on Monday, the Chinese (and Indian) markets sank far more than the U.S. market on Tuesday (helped, albeit, by the Fed rate cut).

Meanwhile, expect the post-recession recovery to be weak. Says who? Jim Jubak?

No, Ben Bernanke. Now you know just how much panic, and gloom, was behind that rate cut.

Plus side? And, yes, there is one. At least we’re not getting Greenspan bullshit. Now, if Bernanke only can prove to have a pair of Paul Volcker conejos, we’ll be OK in the longer term.

Saudi monarch: Peak Oil here now

It doesn’t get much more blunt than this:
“The oil boom is over and will not return. All of us must get used to a different lifestyle,” said King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the largest global oil producer.

Or this, if you prefer an American point of view:
This cautious energy outlook corresponds with statements made by former US Defense Secretary and CIA Director, James Schlesinger, who said at a recent oil summit in Cork: “The battle is over, the oil peakists have won. Current US energy policy and the administration’s oil strategy in Iraq and Iran are deluded.”

Meanwhile, the moron-in-chief simplistically tells Abdullah: “pump more oil.”

Kudos to Whole Foods on plastic bags

The luxury/bulk/organic grocer says it will phase out plastic bags by Earth Day:
A.C. Gallo, co-president and chief operating officer for Whole Foods Market, estimated that the move by Whole Foods will keep 100 million new plastic grocery bags out of the environment between Earth Day and the end of this year alone.

Before taking the step, Whole Foods tested doing away with disposable plastic bags in San Francisco, Toronto and Austin and saw positive customer response, Gallo said.

Great!

A trifecta of economic bad news

Following yesterday’s European and Asian plunge, Wall Street dropped more than 300 points in its first hour of trading, to fall below the 12,000-point mark.

The Fed, in little more than panic mode, cut the funds rate not a half point, but three-quarters of a point.

As pointed out before by me and better people, the flip side is that this drives the dollar further into the tank, and, if the immediate problems of this recession are beyond Fed reach, risks causing some sort of stagflation.

The panic was reflected in finance stocks with housing exposure. Bank of America and Wachovia reported almost zero profit in last year’s fourth quarter.

January 21, 2008

Instead of warning against “environmental protectionism,” why don’t we practice it?

The U.S. is warning the European Union against this horrible, dastardly practice of actually doing something to protect the environment, even in trade issues.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called in October for a European levy on imports from countries outside the Kyoto Protocol, which include the United States.

Gee, 15 years ago, weren’t Democrats promising us that environmental issues would be part of trade agreements such as NAFTA?

Will this year’s crop of “free trade” Democrats really be that much different than the current occupant of the White House?

Please, Ralph, not again

Ralph Nader is talking about yet another Presidential run, apparently not having gotten enough rebuke in 2004 when the Green Party officially caucused and chose somebody else, in part precisely to make clear that it didn’t consider itself affiliated with Nader anymore.

I am likely to vote Green myself. But, for the official Green Party candidate, and not you, Ralph.

Bernanke’s “cure” worse than the disease?

Fortune suggest the Fed chief’s aggressive rate-cutting in the face of what could be a fairly mild recession could backfire. They compare his actions to Fed chiefs Burns and Miller in the mid-70s, warning we may face a real recession, or similar problems, and need a new Paul Volcker, down the road.

That is a legitimate worry, in my book, especially if Bernanke does not prod Congress/Bush to address some structural issues, through regulation or whatever is needed.

January 20, 2008

ASK ME —

To be asked,
Isn’t that part of what we want from being loved?
To be asked about who we are and what we’re becoming,
What we’re doing and what’s happening in our lived?
To be asked about our hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations,
Our sorrows and joys, our loves and angers?
Isn’t that part of what love is about,
To be asked rather than to have to tell everything ourselves,
To have someone who wants to know us, and about us,
Someone curious, interested and desirous?

I’m looking for someone,
A special woman,
Compatible in interests, thoughts, mindset and more
Shared ideals and dreams,
Attractive in all the ways,
Psychologically and emotionally available,
And, who asks about me,
And encourages me to ask about her.

Big biz taking steps to address CO2

The Carbon Disclosure Project, a business consortium, has announced a new sub-organization: the Supply Chain Leadership Collaboration. The group will work on monitoring greenhouse gas emissions of companies in their supply chains. Member companies will each select up to 50 suppliers to work with them and to respond to the CDP pilot information request in the first quarter of this year.

And, it is to be hoped this puts more pressure on the estimated more than 20 percent of the world's 500 largest companies that still refuse to provide information about their greenhouse gas emissions.

OK, Shrub, big biz is getting on board; where are you?